Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Twisting Trail of Expectation

Once again I find myself on that incline, the meandering and steepening path trodden many times before. I find myself accelerating into the cloudy mists above me on a twisting trail of expectation and possibility. During the last week I have pulled on my running shoes four times. That's the most often I have run in over eight months and with a couple of 10km runs thrown in, the furthest too.  It might still only be baby steps and at 30km per week, far less running than I've done in the past, but it's a start and it feels ever so good!

Each of the last four years since running my first road marathon in 2011, I have had grand dreams of running longer distances, running in the many beautiful places that the UK offers - moors, fells and trails.  Each of those four years I have at first become excessively greedy and devoured the miles and invested my running hours with fervour and delightful expectation, putting in those fabled miles and time on the feet that will build me a strong and resilient base for the months and years ahead.  Each year, two or three months into my ascendancy, the train has inevitably come off the tracks in one way or another. Becoming bored, buried in work, or broken to some extent have all served to burst my exuberant bubble before reaching May.  Year 1 - 2012, after a slow start in January nursing my broken feet (I had given them a good pounding during 2011 with all the road based marathon training), I was able to build during February and March. With a mad rush of blood to the head and a wave of the debit card wand, I had conjured up what I hoped would be some desperately needed commitment by entering the Coniston trail marathon. I hoped to shake off the lack lustre months of April and May with some serious training.  It didn't materialise.  With only enough training to run up to half marathon distance before the event, it was a foolish runner who jogged along the trails at a competitive pace for 12 miles before realising that the last 14 miles would be much harder going.  In hindsight, the many miles of training I had run during the previous year must have carried me through that first slow but exhilarating trail marathon. I was rightly pleased with my performance despite the lack of training and it gave another dimension to running that I hadn't considered before - ultra distance events!  In my great naivety, having completed an event with woeful training I believed I could step up to bigger and better things later in the year.  No way was that going to happen!  Summer holidays and work commitments pretty much wiped out the rest of my running year, so it was back to square one for 2013, but the seeds of an idea had been sown...

A pattern began to emerge; 2013, 2014, 2015 all began with a flurry of running activity in January and February.  But each year there followed the gradual breakdown of calves, feet, knees, or ankles.  Each year I began to get stronger but inevitably over-trained or made some foolish error by taking on a single long run that caused some long lasting niggle.  Each year I have varied the routine; road running or trails, lots of short runs or fewer long ones, following a rigid plan or going by instinct.  Each time it's been a huge let-down by the end of April.

So where have I gone wrong?
Ego: Believing I can do as I choose to my 40+ year-old body and expecting it to respond as it did when I was 20 is going to end in hurt or heartache or both.  I should know better than to try racing without having trained, and shouldn' let myself get drawn in to distances that are simply too far in the beginning, even if the routes look fabulous on the map!
Sedentary lifestyle: Years of sitting behind a desk all day has left my body tight and weak, especially core muscles and tights calves.  Not stretching is no longer an option.  Work on core muscles is as important as putting in the miles.
Too much too soon: Ramping up the miles and hoping for the best, wanting to put in the miles early in the year so that I'm ready for later in the season.  I now realise it's going to require a two year plan of consistency and patience to get my body fit and strong and stable.  These things can't be done overnight without consequences.
Priorities and guilt: Don't make running an overarching priority for a few short months and then feel guilty about it later.  Instead, I must invest my time wisely over a longer period and build up slowly, both to get my body and my family and friends used to a new running regime.  Running must be a long term goal rather than a short term quick win.
Quantity rather than quality:  That's a big mistake.  Simply doing extra road miles to build up the distance is no good for me when I know my feet disagree with that strategy (plantar fasciitis), and my head disagrees too (boredom).  Running in wild and interesting places is what makes me tick, so putting plenty of that in the plan is a priority.
Not practising what I preach: Several colleagues have turned to me (misguidedly) for running advice. I always talk about the need for variety, patience, consistency and a long term plan.  Yet I've almost always messed up my own running year by breaking my own guidelines.

And so, what about 2016?  Well, next year will be different!  I've already begun the journey, but its a steady and measured one so far.  Inspired by the autumn Fellrunner magazine from the FRA, and by my son's obvious delight and beautiful natural style when he runs the Ormskirk parkrun, I have been inspired once again to pick my sorry body off the couch and get running.  Three lots of 5km runs each week for the whole of November, followed by a steady and careful ramping up during December and January until I'm doing a steady 40km per week, but no more than four runs in each week and every fourth week is a "rest" week with reduced mileage.  There will be a mixture of short road runs for speed, but a predominance of trail and cross-country running for the most part.  Quality rather than quantity, it feels good so far!  Now to think about some events to factor in some long term commitment...

I'm steadily climbing, ascending, picking a route out between all the obstacles that life throws at me.  I'm pulling on my shoes several times a week and heading out into the wild winds and rain and sun and stars, accelerating into the cloudy mists above me on that runner's twisting trail of expectation and possibility once again.  It's good to be back!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The 'beautiful' people

Just over 2 weeks ago at the wonderful 44th Parbold Hill Race the usual crowd were there. It wasn't that I recognised anyone in particular other than Glen and his family, but I recognised the crowd and the familiar tentative smiles and easy talk.  I recognised those hardy people and their wiry bodies, rugged lines on their faces. With nowhere to hide under fancy suits or skirts, make-up or carefully sculpted hair, running 11km often in ankle deep mud would never be a fashion parade, the mud and sweat and red faces a natural and disarming leveller cutting through the falsity of usual social standing.  Dressing up for the occasion would be absurd.

Beginner, seasoned veteran, or elite athlete alike, everyone was there for the same reason; simply to run. There was no need to hide behind image or be afraid of expectation in an event like that, we were all brothers and sisters gathered for the joy of the challenge (and maybe a half pint of bitter afterwards by way of reward).

These are the beautiful people. Beautiful people who gather on a winter afternoon to slip and slide across muddy fields that suck at feet and ankles.  To trip on hidden tree roots buried in the soil, to leap over fences and stiles. Friends and family come out to support them braving high winds and rain to selflessly clap and cheer and encourage, or to direct the runners around the course. These too are beautiful people, beautiful beyond compare.

The course is like an old friend; each twist and turn, where the trail kicks up, where the mud pools by the fence crossings, and the brief dip in the stream near the end (that seems to become wider and deeper each year).  But it is the crowd - the people - that make this event special.  I shall be back there again next year for the 45th race, without a doubt!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

A Jigsaw is not just for Christmas

Christmas time. Time for cheer and conversation, family gatherings and games of charades. Stir into the mix a few large glasses of booze to liven the spirits and break the ice, and we have a recipe for fun and joviality that all can share and enjoy, right?

Maybe. But look carefully at any gathering and we see the quieter ones refusing to wear their party hat, declining to read their Christmas cracker jokes, or lingering outside for a "little fresh air" longer than the others.

Criticised as "party-poopers" at this happy time, these quiet ones shrink away from some of the bustle and in-your-face celebration that they are expected to enjoy. Though we may see these reticent ones as spoiling the fun - they won't make up the numbers for trivial pursuit or twister, it's likely that they're only shrinking away from what in their eyes is rather draining and excessive razzmatazz, the props that are expected to guarantee enjoyment for the extroverted majority at Christmas time.

Spare a moment for the shy or quiet ones this party season. I don't mean the deliberately cantankerous who just refuse to join in but make their own nonsense amusement through awkwardly opposing the majority. I'm talking of those who reluctantly and quietly join in or sit with noses in books avoiding eye contact and prefer to remain in their own private thoughts.

Over the last few years we have established the tradition of a 'Christmas jigsaw'. I don't know how it started or who first chose this much maligned form of family entertainment, but I hadn't done an 'adult' jigsaw for years.  This year I found myself on the periphery of a happy family gathering sat rather contentedly in a cooperative and sociable activity with two fellow 'quiet ones', doing a 1000 piece jigsaw.  It came to me that so long as you're not on your own, even a quiet activity may be acceptable to the voluble majority if they see two or three engaged in a collective pastime. For once it was acceptable to avoid the raucous games nearby by choosing an alternative form of musical chairs (without the music), our unspoken and fluid movements in and around each other's personal space was a delightful dance with a pace that was simultaneously shared and yet, our own.

When planning your next family gathering, why not roll out the jigsaw mat or set aside a 'chill-out room' for guests to engage in a way that puts them at ease, where introverts can be alone while being together. Give the quiet ones a chance to recharge themselves, and maybe they'll feel more amenable to a game of twister after all.

A jigsaw is not just for Christmas!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

How To: Reset a Garmin heart rate monitor

I was starting to panic, as I am running the Liverpool half-marathon tomorrow and the chest strap monitor that came with my Garmin Forerunner 305 suddenly stopped working yesterday.  Previously there had never been any problem with the Ant+ device - the HRM1G - so I was a bit concerned.

After replacing the battery twice, I was no further forward.  I even tried resetting the Forerunner unit itself.

A couple of Google searches later I came across this thread suggesting reversing the battery.  I tried it, and the HRM1G registered straight away with my Forerunner unit.  How very relieved I am.

Although the Garmin forum thread suggests that the polarity has been reversed, in effect the upturned battery is just short circuiting the two contacts due to the shape of the battery.

A useful hint to know.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Fix your feet - take your shoes off and run!

Chris McDougall has been pushing for wider understanding and adoption of minimalist running since the publication of his Born to Run book in 2010.  Minimalist and barefoot running in spite of regular dismissal as joke or fad in much of the traditional running and fitness media, has gained popularity and more recognition of late, with many mainstream shoe manufacturers trying to cash in on the boom (although some seem to be doing it better than others, and with different agendas).

I admit to being someone regularly on the look out for alternative options for anything and everything, rather than just accepting the status quo I tend to gravitate towards the novel and quirky methods or products available, try them out and ardently stick with what works, particularly when it goes against the established perception that you have to regularly pay out a small fortune for equipment/software/transport/entertainment - I'm reluctant to pay over the odds for anything.

Much of what McDougall writes and says strikes a chord, follows the principles of gradual but continual progression, and adopts the KISS principle. However, no matter how simple you can make the basics of running, I have come to realise there is some quite considerably grander plan in operation that constantly points back at our evolution and how amazing our bodies are at doing the right thing given half a chance, yet crucially we don't often give our bodies a fighting chance...

My recent training for the Liverpool Marathon in October 2011 eventually resulted in plantar fasciitis and meant running the actual race (somewhat gingerly) after barely any training in the 3 week preceding the event.  As this was the first time I've experienced the "vampire bite" I wasn't able to read the early warning signs and carried on with an over-zealous schedule hoping to satisfy my ego and the need to post a good time (I still managed 3:25 which I consider not too shabby for a first marathon).  Post marathon recovery was slow - barely running for 2 months, only the odd 4-6km run once a week if I was lucky - and quite the opposite of running most days during the summer as I did during my Garmin-led schedule from Runners World (pretty good schedule actually - I can recommend it, but don't do too many days if you haven't build up the base milage before).  I was left depleted and disheartened.

I remembered reading somewhere about Dr Robert Schleip curing his own plantar fasciitis by taking to barefoot running in the parks of Berlin, and reading the same message again in Chris McDougall's article on plantar fasciitis I thought it worthy of further research.  I came across this interview with Dr Schleip which points at manipulation of the fascia being beneficial and could aid restoration of its elasticity and condition, just what I was looking for.  Further reading - in particular the discovery of the extensive notes at - really helped to coalesce the multitude of thoughts, discussions and potential remedies into a course of action appropriate to my situation.

I took the plunge and bought a pair of Vivobarefoot Neo's - I'm not prepared to go completely barefoot at any time of the year, and especially not during our UK winter (it's actually been quite mild so far compared to the last two years). Between running in these minimalist shoes, and trying to run over rough, but not hard ground whenever possible - trails and gravel tracks rather than concrete or tarmac, something started to work.  It almost felt like I'd been given a foot massage by the time I took my shoes off after every run.

Things progressed, ...I removed the insoles, ...then did away with socks.  I began to appreciate what proponents of minimalist and barefoot running where saying - my feet simply began to wake up and feel the ground, whereas previously (even in low slung racing flats) I just couldn't appreciate how my balance and control over the positioning and impact of my feet on the ground was being hampered by the lack of feel afforded by cushioned soles and socks.

As the weeks go by I'm beginning to wonder if I could ever return to the spongy soles of the Brooks Green Silence and Asics Gel Tarther that I had run in before.  It's a dually a pleasing and worrying situation, I know that I've gained so much more of an awareness and understanding of my feet and can see how much further there is to progress - the potential is there, yet I'm worried that going out and running longer distances will have to wait until my feet grow strong enough again.

What traditional running shoes did for me was to hide the pain and let me run further and faster than I should have been able to in a short space of time, yet the shoes and my own ego slowly managed to break me in the process (plantar fasciitis and calf strains).  I believe this is the same with many runners, we want instant improvement, something to show for the miles we put in, and want bragging rights with our running friends.

Then just the other day I found this:
How Massage Heals Sore Muscles -

Putting this together with Dr Schleip's research, Chris McDougall's blog, books and presentations and my own experience in the Vivobarefoot shoes, it all starts to add up.  By letting my feet feel the bumps and lumps while still stretching out the muscles and fascia in my feet as I run, as long as I tread lightly and only run every other day, I do believe I'm repairing my feet by running! Wow!

Taking the cushioned shoes off and stripping it all back to basics will hopefully let me feel where I'm going wrong, not do too much too soon and to enjoy the process of learning to run properly.  This is an investment in time I'm willing to make for future pain free running and minimal time in the sick bay.  A short term step back to enable a long term solution - this time I'm going to give my body it's chance to do what it needs to, a chance to tell me what I'm doing wrong so I can heed the call and learn from it.

Let's see how it all works out...

My thanks go out to Chris McDougall, Dr Robert Schleip, Dr Mark Cuccuzella, Dr Daniel Lieberman, and many others who have shown the way.  Thanks for sharing.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Social network aggregation .. and then where?

When the web was young, the search engine was king, a race to provide the best search ensued.  Time passed...

Searching got good enough that most users could no longer discern the difference, and hung their hat on the simplest and fastest - Google.

Focus shifted to content providers and page hit count was king, hmmm... how to keep people coming back?  News posts and blogs.  Time passed...

Content became so numerous and uniform readers needed to skip to the few interesting articles - RSS and the feed reader were born.

So many feeds, too many virtual lives to follow, what to do? Aggregate.

Or, you could catch up with your old neglected friends and find some new ones along the way - Friends Reunited, MySpace and Facebook came of age, satisfying the urge to share (without the need to blog).

With Google+ being recently launched, many of us are faced with a new dilemna - RSS for social networking? See all your friends in one place?  Some will say "No thanks" and in their own masochistic way will endure the numbing experience of following two or more sets of disconnected/semi-connected/overlapping friends without feeling connected to any.  Time passes...

Facebook and Google+ will fight it out for a year or so, with bets being placed and lives shattered in the process as one or the other crumbles or changes into an ogre (all those friends migrated from "FaceSpace+" will trudge back to "MyGBook" tail between legs).

The one great hope - Social Network Aggregation (or integration) - may happen, or likely it won't, at least not in any meaningful sense where everything integrates beautifully (API's will be mysteriously withdrawn and usage contracts modified).  Time passes...

Some geek, sick of revising for exams will hack a few lines of code over a beer (virtual) and a pizza with an old mate from school (virtual), and Google will be scrapping plans for 19 of their latest G+ add-ons within the week.  The world changes again...

Change is the one thing guaranteed.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Simple Sequence Diagrams

I've recently been looking at sequence diagrams to clarify a customer's process, it lends itself well to this type of diagram.  Without wanting to invest heavily in learning a new UML diagramming tool, a quick search turned up, which allows you to create the diagrams through typing what you want in text.  The javascript based tool displays it right in the web page, even allowing you ta save to PNG, PDF or text.

Simple but effective, Thanks!